Games Students Play: Edugames Bring New Dimensions to the School Curriculum

By Vogel, Carl | District Administration, May 2007 | Go to article overview

Games Students Play: Edugames Bring New Dimensions to the School Curriculum


Vogel, Carl, District Administration


DAVID MCDIVITT'S STUDENTS ARE GATHERED IN THE HALL between classes, talking excitedly about how tomorrow they can stop Hitler's terror. McDivitt isn't concerned, however. In fact, he's pleased. The discussion is about Making History, the computer game the kids are playing in his world history class. Each team tries to advance the interests of a key European country in the years leading up to WWII.

Making History isn't a shoot-'em-up game; it's part of a wave of "edugames" created specifically for the classroom. To McDivitt, a social studies teacher at Oak Hill High School in the Oak Hill United School Corporation in Kokomo, Ind., the discussion is a great example of what computer games offer in school. His students are working as a team, using critical thinking skills, and they're excited about the topic.

Certainly there are doubters, from parents and administrators who can't see how playing a game is really learning, to teachers who can't figure out how to incorporate a game into their curriculum effectively. But for years, gaming advocates have pointed to the same benefits McDivitt has found in games, and today, playing edugames and commercial, off-the-shelf games such as Civilization, The Sims and Rollercoaster Tycoon is becoming an accepted classroom activity. In fact, the software and educational publishing industries are now trying to catch up with the demand from schools for games that have an educational factor built right in.

"It's the right thing for right now. We're teaching kids who have grown up with computers as part of their life. This is the direction we need to go to meet kids where they are," McDivitt says.

A Tipping Point

The notion of connecting to these students with games in class is not new. For years, younger kids have played relatively simple games such as Reader Rabbit, which uses graphics, stories and rewards to make learning basic skills fun. The games that have people like McDivitt excited, though, are more complex and burrow deeper into a student's brain.

In the past few years, enthusiasm for incorporating these kinds of games in the curriculum has grown. Computers and high-speed connections are more ubiquitous at schools, and today's students live in a tech world. Forty-five of 53 million K12 students in the country consider themselves "gamers," says Karen Billings, the vice president of the educational division of the Software & Information Industry Association.

Billings' organization recently created a new EduGames and Simulations Working Group, launched to reflect the enthusiastic response to a session on games in school at the 2006 Florida Educational Technology Conference. "Almost every week I hear from an association member who wants to be part of the working group," she says. "There's just a lot going on right now, more than I can ever remember."

For example, MIT's Education Arcade, a two-year old consortium that includes Microsoft's Games-to-Teach Project and MIT's Comparative Media Studies department, have both developed more than a dozen edugames and started to gather data on their effectiveness. Research papers published in the last two years investigated everything from how multiuser virtual environments can teach junior high students science to how students in West Virginia are improving endurance and muscle strength by playing Dance Dance Revolution in physical education class.

Many of the games being used in school are for older students. Civilization and Sim City, for instance, are best suited for the high school level. However, some elementary schools use games such as Zoo Tycoon--where kids learn how to run a zoo, including managing different animals, feeding schedules and habitats, and even strategies for bringing in more visitors--or Food Force, a free Internet game that teaches students about food relief missions and includes lessons tied to nutrition, transportation and politics. …

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